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Three Reasons the 2017 NFL Trade Deadline Was the Most Active Ever

Why did football’s normally boring deadline wind up bringing us a slew of season-shaking moves?

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Well, so much for another forgettable NFL trade deadline. For years, the football deadline has come and gone without much fuss. Unlike the trade deadlines in the NBA and MLB—which have long coincided with a slew of notable in-season moves made by teams trying to load up for the stretch run—the NFL’s trade deadline has typically been characterized by deals that were barely worth registering, if any deals happened at all. Pick-for-player trades have grown more popular in recent years, but even with that context there was no way to know just how much movement would take place in the period leading up to Tuesday afternoon.

To start things off, the Bills shipped nose tackle Marcell Dareus and his albatross salary to Jacksonville for a sixth-round pick in next year’s draft. San Francisco stunned many around the league by acquiring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo from New England in exchange for a 2018 second-round pick. The Seahawks landed left tackle Duane Brown and a 2018 fifth-rounder from Houston in exchange for a 2018 third-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder (the third-round pick coming after an initial deal involving cornerback Jeremy Lane fell through because of a failed physical), and Miami shipped disgruntled running back Jay Ajayi to Philadelphia for the 2018 fourth-round pick the Eagles got in last season’s Sam Bradford trade. The Panthers sent Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo for two picks (third- and seventh-rounders) in 2018.

I mean, look at that recap. This trade deadline had everything, including the Browns botching a trade in so many ways that they were ultimately saved from making a disgusting mistake. It was the NFL equivalent of drunkenly starting a pizza order and falling asleep before hitting send.

We’ve already sorted through who won and lost these deals. Now, it’s time to examine why a usually quiet deadline brought a flurry of action in 2017. ESPN’s Adam Schefter tweeted that one source told him this was the “most active trade deadline ever.” Here are three reasons it was so ridiculous.

1. The combination of a later deadline date and the presence of a group of bunched-up contenders has a disproportionate amount of teams looking to make a push.

In 2012, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to move the trade deadline back from after Week 6 to the Tuesday after Week 8. As it turned out, the landscape of the league this fall provided the perfect setting for that small adjustment to matter. Halfway through this campaign, no clear-cut Super Bowl favorite has emerged. According to data compiled by Football Outsiders, this marks only the fourth season during which no team has a DVOA over 30 percent following Week 8. With so many teams bunched together, the executives for potential contenders like the Eagles, Seahawks, and Jaguars may have taken a look around the league and asked, Why the hell not us?

For Seattle and Jacksonville, the moves for Brown and Dareus, respectively, address their most glaring areas of need (non–Blake Bortles Division). The Jaguars rank no. 1 in pass defense DVOA by a mile, allowing a ridiculous 4.2 net yards per attempt and 161.7 yards per game, and have scored as many defensive touchdowns (four) as they’ve allowed passing touchdowns. The issue is that Jacksonville’s run defense has trended just as far in the other direction, allowing 5.2 yards per carry while ranking dead last in rushing DVOA. In negotiating this move, executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and the Jaguars front office are hoping that Dareus can provide some resistance in the middle of that defense, and that reuniting with former head coach Doug Marrone can revitalize his career.

Seattle’s move for Brown carries far less risk, which is part of what drove the price tag up. Even at 32 years old, Brown is still more than capable at left tackle, and in comparison to former Seahawks starter Rees Odhiambo, he must seem like a blend of Anthony Muñoz, Jonathan Ogden, and Thor. The Seahawks are filled with superstars who are on second and third contracts, which means that unlike some of the other deadline buyers, they’re strapped for cash. That it took some accounting acrobatics and two high picks to bring Brown into the fold shines a light on the Seahawks’ thinking. The path through the NFC looks wide open; with Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, Frank Clark, and K.J. Wright all set to hit free agency in 2019, it’s reasonable to wonder how long this version of the team will exist.

The Eagles adding Ajayi doesn’t provide nearly as dramatic an upgrade as the trades mentioned above, but it falls into the same category. Philly has the best record in the NFL, and there’s no reason that it can’t win the title this season. Giving away a future fourth-round pick to land a 24-year-old running back making $325,588 this year and $705,000 next year (none of it guaranteed) is a risk the Eagles felt was worth taking, even if the Dolphins couldn’t wait to get Ajayi out of their building. Philly’s ground game has been reliable all season behind LeGarrette Blount and his 4.7 yards per carry; with Ajayi, it may have added the home run threat it was missing.

2. There are enough teams that are [cue Jean-Ralphio voice] fluuuusssh with caaaashhhh.

Teams having huge amounts of cap space made it possible to complete trades that will force organizations to burn massive sums of money. Dareus’s contract—six years, $96 million with $60 million guaranteed—is among the worst in the league, and it’s a miracle that the Bills could get it off their books. The dead money left on his deal means that the Jaguars will almost certainly have Dareus on the roster in 2018, despite a $10.2 million cap figure. And you know what’s amazing? They can afford it! Even after spending like a boozed-up oil baron the past few seasons, Jacksonville is still poised to have $2.5 million in cap space entering next season. If it were to get rid of Bortles and his nonguaranteed $19 million salary, all of a sudden it’d have more than $21 million in wiggle room to go with a roster that’s frighteningly talented.

The 49ers hope the money they’ll now get to throw at soon-to-be free agent Jimmy Garoppolo is the best cash they’ll ever spend. There’s no way that San Francisco would have parted with a likely top-35 draft pick to get a rental quarterback for half a season. Head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are going all in on making Garoppolo their guy, and they have the money to pay him whatever it takes. The Niners are set to have more than $61 million in cap space next spring, meaning they can comfortably ink Garoppolo with plenty of room to spare.

The figure Jimmy G was likely to command in free agency was part of the reason there just wasn’t a solution for the Patriots keeping him in New England. As Bill Belichick noted on a conference call Tuesday, the Pats “explored every option possible to try to sustain it, but it just at this point felt like [they] had to make a decision.” With a guy like Mike Glennon netting $15 million a year this spring, it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which the Pats could have figured out a way to fit both Garoppolo and Tom Brady under the cap, especially considering the flexibility provided by New England’s relatively low cumulative quarterback spending has long been one of Belichick’s biggest advantages.

3. The tendency for teams to look at draft picks the way that Gollum sees the Ring seems to be fading.

I wrote in June about the growing trend of teams giving up draft capital as a way to secure proven veterans. The Pats dealt away nearly half of their 2017 draft assets (through trades and restricted free-agent signings) to bring in established players like Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee, and Dwayne Allen. They’re not alone in embracing that approach. Philly made a slew of pick-for-player trades over the past year before dealing for Ajayi, including moves that netted Timmy Jernigan and Ronald Darby.

There’s no denying the value that rookie contracts carry in the modern NFL. Hitting on a bunch of picks and stockpiling players who are worth 10 or 20 times their salary remains the best way to build the foundation of a contender. Yet given the amount of trades that occurred at the deadline and during the offseason, it feels like many teams have moved past treating draft picks like priceless treasures. Front offices are willing to sacrifice a couple of years on a rookie deal to secure a guy who’s a proven difference-maker.

The 49ers clearly feel better about giving Garoppolo a massive deal than taking a quarterback in the top five of next spring’s draft. Philly must think two years of Ajayi is more valuable than the four seasons it’d likely get out of a fourth-round pick. And the Bills, a franchise that entered this season stockpiling picks above all else, is apparently fine with using two future picks to get Benjamin, who comes with a fifth-year option that costs more than $8 million next season.

I feel better about two of those deals than I do the other one. (Hi, Buffalo!) All three, though, follow the same line of thinking: Eventually, draft picks have to turn into quality players if a team is going to compete. If this trade deadline is a sign of things to come, the season’s midway point could become a popular time to find exactly those types of guys.